In a landmark judgment, the Federal Court found the environment minister has a duty of care to young people


AAP Image/James Gourley, Author provided

Laura Schuijers, The University of MelbourneThis morning, the Australian Federal Court delivered a landmark judgement on climate change, marking an important moment in our history.

The class action case was brought on behalf of all Australian children and teenagers, against Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

Their aim was to prevent Ley from possibly approving the Whitehaven coal mine extension project, near Gunnedah in New South Wales. They argued that approving this project would endanger their future because of climate hazards, including causing them injury, ill health or death, and economic losses.

The court dismissed the application to stop the minister from approving the extension. But that’s just the beginning.

Before making those orders, the court found a new duty it never has before: the environment minister owes a duty of care to Australia’s young people not to cause them physical harm in the form of personal injury from climate change.

‘Australia will be lost’: the court’s moving findings

The court considered evidence in the case from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, and globally renowned ANU climate scientist Will Steffen.

In a tear-jerking moment during the Federal Court’s live-streamed summary, the court found that one million of today’s Australian children are expected to be hospitalised because of a heat-stress episode, that substantial economic loss will be experienced, and that the Great Barrier Reef and most of Australia’s eucalypt forest won’t exist when they grow up.

It found this harm is real, catastrophic, and – importantly from a legal perspective – “reasonably foreseeable”. In decades past, courts have considered climate change to be a “speculative”, “future problem”.

That is no longer the case. The court concluded, in a moving paragraph from the written judgment:

It is difficult to characterise in a single phrase the devastation that the plausible evidence presented in this proceeding forecasts for the children. As Australian adults know their country, Australia will be lost and the world as we know it gone as well.

The physical environment will be harsher, far more extreme and devastatingly brutal when angry. As for the human experience – quality of life, opportunities to partake in nature’s treasures, the capacity to grow and prosper – all will be greatly diminished.

Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain.

None of this will be the fault of nature itself. It will largely be inflicted by the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.

To say that the children are vulnerable is to understate their predicament.

Establishing a new duty of care

The children took a novel route in asserting the federal environment minister owed them a duty of care. A duty of care means a responsibility not to take actions that could harm others. A duty of care is the first step in a claim of negligence.

A similar duty was found in the Netherlands in 2015, as a global first. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld that duty – the Dutch government owed its citizens a duty to reduce emissions in order to protect human rights.

Other cases around the world were inspired by that success, including the one decided in Australia today.




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The court today didn’t say the minister has a duty to stop all coal projects of any size, as it was only considering the Whitehaven extension project. But this is still hugely significant.

Australia has been repeatedly criticised on the global stage for its stance on new coal and climate change more generally. Now, we may find the decisions made by its environment ministers could amount to negligent conduct.

The buck doesn’t stop at governments

Back in the Netherlands, something else significant happened this week — the world learned the buck doesn’t stop at governments.

In what’s been described as “arguably the most significant climate change judgement yet”, a court in The Hague ordered Royal Dutch Shell, a global oil and gas company, to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels, via its corporate policy.

This could have far-reaching consequences for oil and gas companies all over the world, including in Australia.

So now we have a dual momentum — governments need to be careful what they approve, and fossil fuels companies need be careful what they propose.

Putting the minister on notice

It’s important to recognise Ley hasn’t made a decision yet to approve the coal mine extension. The young Australians were seeking to stop her from approving it, and in that they didn’t succeed.

However, her responsibility to young people has now been formally recognised by the court.

Today’s children are vulnerable to climate change and they depend on the environment minister to protect their interests. We don’t know yet if the minister will approve the mine extension, or if she does, whether that means she has breached her duty to the children. But we do know how significant the harm from climate change will be.

In 2019, a NSW court confirmed now is not the time to be approving new coal, and every coal mine counts.

Today’s judgement opens the door for future litigation if the minister is not careful about approving projects that could harm the next generations of Australians.

But importantly, it puts the federal environment minister on notice — while political terms might be only short, decisions now have intergenerational consequences for the future.

Short-term financial gain can have detrimental impacts on the health and economic wellbeing of those who can’t vote yet.




Read more:
These young Queenslanders are taking on Clive Palmer’s coal company and making history for human rights



This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The idea of ‘green growth’ is flawed. We must find ways of using and wasting less energy


Shutterstock/Cherdchai charasri

Michael (Mike) Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonAs countries explore ways of decarbonising their economies, the mantra of “green growth” risks trapping us in a spiral of failures. Green growth is an oxymoron.

Growth requires more material extraction, which in turn requires more energy. The fundamental problem we face in trying to replace fossil energy with renewable energy is that all our renewable technologies are significantly less energy dense than fossil fuels.

This means much larger areas are required to produce the same amount of energy.

Earlier this year, data from the European Union showed renewable electricity generation has overtaken coal and gas in 2020. But previous research argued that to replace the total energy (not just electricity) use of the UK with the best available mix of wind, solar and hydroelectricity would require the entire landmass of the country. To do it for Singapore would require the area of 60 Singapores.

I am not in any way denying or diminishing the need to stop emitting fossil carbon. But if we don’t focus on reducing consumption and energy waste, and instead fixate on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, we are simply swapping one race to destruction with another.




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The carbon causing our climate problem today came from fossilised biology formed through ancient carbon cycles, mostly over the 200 million years of the Mesozoic era (ending 66 million years ago).

We must stop burning fossil fuels, but we must also understand that every technology to replace them, while attempting to maintain our current consumption, let alone allowing for consumption growth, requires huge amounts of fossil energy.

Environmental impact of renewables

Carbon reduction without consumption reduction is only possible through methods that have their own massive environmental impacts and resource limitations.

To make renewable energy, fossil energy is needed to mine the raw materials, to transport, to manufacture, to connect the energy capture systems and finally to produce the machines to use the energy.

The new renewable infrastructure requires rare earth minerals, which is a problem in itself. But most of the raw materials required to produce and apply new energy technology are also getting harder to find. The returns on mining them are reducing, and the dilemma of declining returns applies to the very fossil fuels needed to mine the declining metal ore.




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Globally, despite building lots of renewable electricity infrastructure, we have not yet increased the proportion of renewable energy in our total energy consumption.

Electricity is only 20% of our total energy use. Renewable electricity has not displaced fossil energy in most countries because our consumption increases faster than we can add renewable generation.

The problems with wanting to maintain industrial civilisation are many, but the starkest is that it is the actual cause of our climate crisis and other environmental crises.

If we carry on with life as usual — the underlying dream of the “green growth” concept — we will end up destroying the life-supporting capacity of our planet.

What happened to environmentalism?

The green growth concept is part of a broader and long-running trend to co-opt the words green and environmentalist.

Environmentalism emerged from the 1960s as a movement to save the natural world. Now it seems to have been appropriated to describe the fight to save industrial civilisation — life as we know it.

This shift has serious implications because the two concepts — green growth and environmentalism — are inherently incompatible.

Traditionally, environmentalists included people like Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring alerted Americans to the industrial poisons killing birds and insects and fouling drinking water, or environmental organisations like Greenpeace saving whales and baby seals.

In New Zealand, being green had its roots in movements like the Save Manapouri campaign, which fought to save ancient native forests from inundation when a hydropower dam was built. Environmentalism had a clear focus on saving the living world.

Now environmentalism has been realigned to reducing carbon emissions, as if climate change was our only impending crisis. Parliamentary Greens seem set to want to reach net zero carbon by 2050 at any cost.

The word “net” allows champions of industry-friendly environmentalism to avoid considering the critical need to reduce our energy consumption.




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We must somehow drag ourselves away from our growth paradigm to tackle the multiple crises coming at us. Our only future is one where we consume less, do less, waste less and stop our obsession with accumulating.

If we keep trying to maintain our current growth trajectory, built on a one-off fossil bonanza, we will destroy the already stressed life-supporting systems that sustain us. Protecting these and their essential biotic components is true environmentalism — not attempting to maintain our industrial way of life, just without carbon.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Seabirds are today’s canaries in the coal mine – and they’re sending us an urgent message


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David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast; Brian Allan Hoover, Chapman University, and William Sydeman, University of California San DiegoJust as caged canaries once warned coal miners of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, free-flying seabirds are now warning humanity about the deteriorating health of our oceans.

Seabirds journey vast distances across Earth’s seascapes to find food and to breed. This exposes them to changes in ocean conditions, climate and food webs. This means their biology, particularly their breeding successes, can reveal these changes to us on a rare, planet-wide scale.

We collated and analysed the world’s largest database on seabird breeding. Our findings reveal a key message: urgency in the Northern Hemisphere and opportunity in the south.

The Northern Hemisphere ocean systems are degraded and urgently need better management and restoration. Damage to Southern Hemisphere oceans from threats such as climate change and industrial fishing is accelerating, but opportunities remain there to avoid the worst.

northern gannet pair with offspring
Seabird breeding success is a good indicator of ocean health.
Shutterstock

Oceans at a crossroads

Seabirds often travel far across the planet. For example, many sooty shearwaters breed in New Zealand, yet travel each year to the productive waters of the northeast Pacific. Arctic terns migrate even further, travelling each year between the Arctic and Antarctic.

Scientists often use satellite-derived data sets to determine, for example, how the oceans’ surfaces are warming or how ocean food webs are changing. Few such data sets span the globe, however, and this is where seabirds come in.

Over its long journey, a seabird eats fish and plankton. In doing so, it absorbs signals about ocean conditions, including the effects of pollution, marine heatwaves, ocean warming and other ecological changes.

Seabird breeding productivity (the number of chicks produced per female per year) depends on the food resources available. In this way, seabirds are sentinels of change in marine ecosystems. They can tell us which parts of oceans are healthy enough to support their breeding and which parts may be in trouble.




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Shearwater floats on water
Many sooty shearwaters breed in New Zealand then migrate to the northeast Pacific.
Shutterstock

Deciphering seabird messages

In some cases, seabirds tell us directly about major distress in the oceans. This was the case in 2015-16, when around a million emaciated common murres died, many washing up on beaches from California to Alaska. The seabirds experienced severe food shortages caused by an acute marine heatwave.

In other cases, seabird health can hint at longer-term and more subtle disruption of ocean ecosystems, and we are left to decipher these messages.

In this task, seabird breeding provides important clues about marine food webs that are otherwise difficult or impossible to measure directly, especially at global scales. Thankfully, seabird scientists around the world have consistently measured breeding productivity over decades.

Our research team included 36 of these scientists. We collated a database of breeding productivity for 66 seabird species from 46 sites around the world, from 1964 to 2018. We used the data to determine whether seabirds were producing relatively more or fewer chicks over the past 50 years, and whether the risk of breeding failure was increasing or decreasing.

bird flies over water
In the Southern Hemisphere, there’s still time to reverse the oceans’ plight.
Shutterstock

Striking findings

In the Northern Hemisphere, breeding productivity of plankton-eating birds such as storm petrels and auklets increased strongly over 50 years, but breeding productivity of fish-eating birds declined sharply.

In the Southern Hemisphere, by contrast, breeding productivity of plankton-eating seabirds declined weakly, but increased strongly for fish eaters.

In short, fish-eating seabirds in the north are in trouble. Decreasing breeding productivity leads to population declines, and the low breeding rate of seabirds (many species only have one chick per year) means populations recover slowly.

More worrying, though, were our findings on the risk of breeding failure.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the probability of breeding failure was low throughout the study period. The same was true for Northern Hemisphere plankton feeders. But fish eaters in the north showed dramatically increasing risk of breeding failure, most acutely in the years since 2000.

Importantly, increasing risk of breeding failure was also much higher for seabirds that feed at the ocean’s surface, such as black-legged kittiwakes, compared with those that feed at greater depths, such as puffins.




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Risk of breeding failure was higher for seabirds that feed at the ocean’s surface.
©Eric J Woehler

What this tells us

Unfortunately, these results match what we know about human-caused damage to the ocean.

First, many pollutants such as plastics collect close to the ocean surface. They are often eaten by surface-feeding seabirds, potentially hampering their ability to produce chicks.

Similarly, the rate of ocean warming has been more than three times faster, and the change in number of marine heatwave days twice as large, on average, in the Northern than Southern Hemisphere over the past 50 years.

Likewise, northern oceans have sustained industrial fisheries for far longer than those in the south. This has likely reduced food supplies to Northern Hemisphere fish-eating seabirds over longer periods, causing chronic disruptions in their breeding success.

But human impacts in the Southern Hemisphere are accelerating. Ocean warming and marine heatwaves are becoming more intense, and industrial fisheries and plastic pollution are ever-more pervasive.

Rate of warming of the surface ocean over the past 50 years.

We must heed the warnings from our seabird “canaries”. With careful planning and marine reserves that take account of projected climate change, the Southern Hemisphere might avoid the worst consequences of human activity. But without action, some seabird species may be lost and ocean food webs damaged.

In the Northern Hemisphere, there is no time to waste. Innovative management and restoration plans are urgently needed to avoid further deterioration in ocean health.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Watch for new articles ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November. Brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.The Conversation

David Schoeman, Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Brian Allan Hoover, Postdoctoral Fellow, Chapman University, and William Sydeman, Adjunct associate, University of California San Diego

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change will cost a young Australian up to $245,000 over their lifetime, court case reveals


AAP

Liam Phelan, University of Newcastle and Jacquie Svenson, University of NewcastleThe Federal Court today dismissed a bid by a group of Australian teenagers seeking to prevent federal environment minister Sussan Ley from approving a coalmine extension in New South Wales.

While the teens’ request for an injunction was unsuccessful, a number of important developments emerged during the court proceedings. This included new figures on the financial costs of climate change to young Australians over their lifetimes.

An independent expert witness put the loss at between A$125,000 and A$245,000 per person. The calculation was a conservative one, and did not include health impacts which were assessed separately.

The evidence was accepted by both the federal government’s legal team and the judge. That it was uncontested represents an important shift. No longer are the financial impacts of climate change a vague future loss – they’re now a tangible, quantifiable harm.

Three teens involved in the case embrace outside the Federal Court
The Federal Court dismissed the teens’ request for an injunction against a mine.
James Gourley/AAP

Calculating climate costs

The case involved a proposed extension to Whitehaven’s Vickery mine near Gunnedah in northwest NSW. The expansion would increase the total emissions over the life of the mine to 366 million tonnes.

To help in its deliberations, the court called on an independent expert witness, Dr Karl Mallon, to estimate the extent to which climate change would harm the eight young Australians aged 13 to 17, and by extension all children in Australia.

Mallon is chief executive of Climate Risk, a consultancy specialising in climate risk and adaptation software which advises governments and businesses around the world. This is the first time anywhere in the world this technique for quantifying harm in climate litigation has been applied and accepted.

Mallon first assumed a level of ongoing greenhouse gas emissions, with reference to standard scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The scenarios range from futures with ambitious emissions reductions to those with very little.

So Mallon used the IPCC’s high-end emissions scenario known as RCP8.5 – the only one consistent with increasing coal production.

Second, Mallon drew on atmospheric modelling to provide projections for Australia on climate effects such as changes in temperature and rainfall. He then quantified the financial and health costs of those changes across three “epochs”, or time periods, in the futures of young people today.

coal plant with emissions from chimneys
The proposed mine expansion would mean increased coal production, and emissions.
Shutterstock

Epoch 1: loss of property wealth

The first epoch spanned the decade to 2030. Mallon limited his analysis to how climate change will affect housing markets, leading to the loss of family property wealth.

Some homes are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and climate risks such as bushfires, flooding, coastal inundation, cyclones and subsidence. Mallon’s modelling found about 5% of family homes would be affected damaged by climate change and associated extreme weather events this decade.

Already in some areas insurance premiums are becoming unaffordable and the problem will likely worsen as climate change unfolds. This will reduce the market value of high-risk properties.

Mallon estimated an average loss to the value of family homes by 2030 at about A$40-85,000 per child.

Home burnt to rubble by fire
Fire risk will make some homes uninsurable.
James Gourley/AAP

Epoch 2: reduced earnings

This epoch spanned the years 2040 to 2060, when the applicants would be aged between 20 and 58 years. This part of Mallon’s analysis focused first on loss to prosperity – how climate change would affect a young person’s ability to work.

On hot days, the body must expend extra energy dissipating heat (usually by sweating). As the International Labour Organisation has noted, exposure to these conditions for extended periods is risky, and to endure them people must drink water and take regular breaks, leading to lower productivity.

Rising temperatures under climate change will increase the number of days where the ability to work outside safely will be hampered. Mallon found around 30% of today’s children will work in climate-vulnerable jobs, such as agriculture and construction.

People in these jobs will be less productive, and the cost to employers will eventually be passed to employees through lower wages. Mallon estimated this means a loss of about A$75,000 over a young person’s working life.

Climate change and associated extreme weather will also disrupt the infrastructure businesses rely on, such as electricity, telecommunications and transport. Again, these productivity losses will eventually be reflected in employee wages.

In Mallon’s opinion, repeated extreme weather damage to business continuity will lead to an estimated average A$25,000 annual loss per person over the working life of a child today.

Climate change will also deliver general “hits” to the economy. Mallon’s analysis here focused only on agricultural and labour productivity, and drew on existing research to estimate losses of about A$60,000 per person over their lifetimes.

The bottom line? Mallon’s partial, conservative calculations found today’s children will forego between A$125,000 and A$245,000 each due to the climate impacts noted above. He puts the most likely cost at around A$170,000 for each child.

Three girls wade through floodwaters
Natural disasters such as flood and fire will lead to economic disruption.
Tracy Nearmy/AAP

Epoch 3: risks to health

The third epoch spanned 2070 to 2100, when today’s young people will be in the later stages of their lives. Here, Mallon’s analysis focused on the health impacts of higher temperatures. These will lead to increased heat stress, ambulance call outs, presentations to emergency departments and hospitalisations.

Older people are more vulnerable to the health effects of higher temperatures, and also more likely to die. Mallon found one in five of today’s children will likely be hospitalised due to heat stress in their senior years.

Act hard and fast

In Australia and around the world, people concerned about climate change are increasingly using litigation in a bid to force governments to act.

This means we can expect to quantification of the financial costs of climate change being presented more often in our courts.

Mallon’s calculations do not cover all harm that will be caused by climate change – only that for which detailed accessible modelling exists. The full financial and health costs will inevitably be far greater than the scope of his assessment.

Global emissions must urgently be cut to net-zero to avert the most disastrous climate change impacts. The arguments in favour of radical mitigation action, including the personal financial risks, grow ever-more compelling by the day.




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This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Liam Phelan, Senior Lecturer, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Jacquie Svenson, Clinical Teacher/Solicitor, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Before and after: 4 new graphics show the recovery from last summer’s bushfire devastation



Airborne Research Australia, Author provided

Jorg Michael Hacker, Flinders University

Two days before Christmas last year, a fire reached our heritage-protected bush property in the Adelaide Hills, and destroyed our neighbour’s house. For the next two weeks we were on constant alert to keep the fire in check.

Green shoots of grass trees after bushfire
Grass trees are some of the first plants to regrow after a bushfire.
Wikimedia, CC BY

A few weeks later, I flew over fire-affected areas in the Adelaide Hills and had my first aerial view of the devastation. Fighting fires around my home, and what I saw on this flight, convinced me to get involved with helping recovery in the aftermath of the fires.

In the past year, I’ve taken high-resolution aerial data to monitor the recovery of fire-affected areas and help with post-fire efforts. This work includes clearing access tracks into burnt forests, locating unburnt areas within burnt forests to serve as refuges for wildlife, or simply documenting the degree of destruction.

I now have a unique dataset – a combination of very high-resolution and detail from three sensors: aerial photography, airborne Lidar (a way to measure distances with laser light) and hyperspectral imaging (looking at the landscape and vegetation with hundreds of narrow wavelengths).

Flying at just 250 metres above the ground, it’s possible to generate complete three-dimensional views and animations of the landscape and its features at resolutions in the 10cm-range.

Usually such airborne data is only available to government agencies, industry and sometimes researchers, but rarely to the general public. So we decided to make the data publicly available, so anyone can download it. It will help you appreciate the level of destruction, and how it varied for different landscapes.

My property, for example, is showing strong regrowth, but most of our neighbour’s block burnt so intensely that even now, after nearly one year, there’s very little regrowth even in terms of ground cover.

Here are a few examples of the landscape’s recovery around Kangaroo Island, generated from our data.



Bushfires decimated almost half of Kangaroo Island. The image sequence above shows a small area on Kangaroo Island before the fires and about one, three and nine months afterwards.

Before the fires, the landscape was dominated by dense bushland, which the fires nearly completely destroyed. The first signs of regrowth were visible after three months, and even more so after nine months.

The imagery is so detailed you can inspect the regrowth even for individual trees and scrubs. And in the slider below, you can more clearly compare how well the bushland regrew between February and October this year.

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Much of Australia’s native flora have evolved to cope with fire. Grass trees are among the first species to recover, and the Lidar data below demonstrates just how dramatic this recovery is.

Thousands of grass trees (“yuccas”) on Kangaroo Island grew up to seven metre-high flowers in the months after the fires. This is a typical phenomenon for this species after fire, and we were lucky enough to see this first hand on our bushland property, too.


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The video below shows the regrowth in and around a tree plantation on Kangaroo Island, directly after the fires and then after nine months. You can clearly see the intense regrowth on the ground and near the bottom of the burnt trees.

Usually firegrounds are observed via satellite imagery, imagery captured from high-flying survey aircraft and, more recently, using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). None of these observations can map the landscape at the exceptionally high detail over large areas and with the combination of sensors as we have flown.

High-resolution aerial photographs at pixel sizes as small as five centimetres can be put together in a mosaic, covering many square kilometres. Combined with Lidar, and the hyperspectral scanner, we get detailed animations, such as those in the video, which can zero in on various intricate aspects, such as vegetation health.



How these datasets can help bushfire recovery

With a some moderate funding, we can continue these regular mapping flights next year and beyond to learn how these areas develop. We can put this into context with other factors, such as burn severity, soil structure and vegetation type.

Such detailed datasets would assist researchers assessing flammability and fuel load (dried vegetation) which, in turn, would help prevent and even fight future fires.




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Flammability and fuel load, alongside the slope of the landscape, are key parameters in computer simulations of fire behaviour. High resolution datasets depicting landscapes before and after bushfire can verify the simulation results, and help to improve the performance of the models.

Our datasets can also be useful for people needing to access areas directly after the fires, such as identifying where burnt trees have fallen, or are just about to do so.

For our own bushland block in the Adelaide Hills, these detailed imagery and datasets means we can study the regrowth from the Cudlee Creek Fire almost a year ago, as well as from previous fires. For example, some areas were burnt in the 2015 Sampson Flat Fire and had already regrown over the four years — only to be burnt again.

Continuing such flights would require a comparatively low amount of funding. However, this is currently not available in the standard government grant system. You can download data from the mapping flights over Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island.




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The Conversation


Jorg Michael Hacker, Chief Scientist at Airborne Research Australia (ARA); and Professor, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NSW has joined China, South Korea and Japan as climate leaders. Now it’s time for the rest of Australia to follow



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Tim Nelson, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Griffith University

It’s been a busy couple of months in global energy and climate policy. Australia’s largest trading partners – China, South Korea and Japan – have all announced they will reach net-zero emissions by about mid-century. In the United States, the incoming Biden administration has committed to decarbonising its electricity system by 2035.

These pledges have big implications for Australia. With some of the best renewable resources in the world, we have much to gain from the transition. And this week, the New South Wales government embraced the opportunity.

Its new A$32 billion Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap will, among other things, support the construction of 12 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity by 2030. This is six times the capacity of the state’s Liddell coal-fired power station, set to close in 2023.

The roadmap was developed by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean through extensive consultation with industry and others, including ourselves. While we believe a national carbon price is the best way to reduce emissions, the NSW approach nonetheless sets an example for other states looking to increase renewable energy capacity. So let’s take a closer look at the plan.

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean
The authors worked with NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean, pictured, to help devise the policy.
Dean Lewins/AAP

What’s the roadmap all about?

The roadmap acknowledges that within 15 years, three-quarters of NSW’s coal-fired electricity supply is expected to reach the end of its technical life. It says action is needed now to ensure cheap, clean and reliable electricity, and to set up NSW as a global energy superpower.

The plan involves a coordinated approach to transmission, generation and storage. By 2030, the government aims to:

  • deliver about 12 gigawatts of new transmission capacity through so-called “renewable energy zones” in three regional areas by 2030. It would most likely be generated by wind and solar

  • support about 3 gigawatts of energy storage to help back up variable renewable energy supplies. This would involve batteries, pumped hydro, and “hydrogen ready” gas peaking power stations

  • attract up to A$32 billion in private investment in regional energy infrastructure investment by 2030

  • support more than 6,300 construction and 2,800 ongoing jobs in 2030, mostly in regional NSW

  • reduce NSW’s carbon emissions by 90 million tonnes.

The plan also aims to see the average NSW household save about A$130 a year in electricity costs, although this might be hard to achieve in practice. And regional landholders hosting renewable projects on their properties are expected to earn A$1.5 billion in revenue over the next 20 years.

The Liddell coal-fired power station
12 gigawatts of new renewables capacity is about six times the capacity of NSW’s Liddell coal-fired power station.
Shutterstock

Giving generators options

One of the most innovative aspects of the NSW proposal is that generators will have two options when it comes to selling their electricity.

First, the government will appoint an independent “consumer trustee” to purchase electricity from generators at an agreed price – giving the generators the long-term certainty they need to invest. The trustee would then sell this electricity either directly to the market, or through contracts to retailers.

But the trustee will encourage generators to first seek a better price by finding their own customers, such as energy consumers and other electricity retailers.




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This system is different to the approach adopted in Victoria and the ACT, where government contracts remove any incentive for generators to participate in the energy market. Over time, this limits market competition and innovation.

The NSW plan improves on existing state policies in another way – by aligning financial incentives to the physical needs of the system. The Consumer Trustee will enter into contracts with projects that produce electricity at times of the day when consumers need it, and not when the system is already oversupplied.

While this won’t be easy for the trustee to model, this approach is likely to benefit consumers more than in other jurisdictions where lowest-cost projects seem to be preferred, irrespective of whether the energy they produced is needed by consumers.

One shortcoming of the roadmap is it does not financially reward existing low-emissions electricity generators in NSW, nor does it charge carbon-heavy electricity producers for the emissions they produce. This could be corrected in the future by integrating the policy into a nationally consistent carbon price, which transfers the cost of carbon pollution onto heavy emitters.

A $50 note sticking out of a power socket
Electricity generators will be guaranteed a floor price for their electricity.
Julian Smith/AAP

Why is all this so important?

NSW’s ageing coal-fired power stations are chugging along – albeit with ever-declining reliability. But it’s only a matter of time before something expensive needs fixing. This was the case with Hazelwood in Victoria: the old walls of the boilers had thinned to less than 2 millimetres. The repair cost was prohibitive and the station closed with just five months’ notice. Electricity prices shot up in response to unexpectedly reduced supply.

In NSW, the consumer trustee will be tasked with helping ensuring replacement generation is delivered in a timely way. This means developing new generation capacity well ahead of announced coal plant closures.

This is a helpful development. But ultimately a stronger measure will be needed to ensure coal plants give early notice of their intention to exit the market. The Grattan Institute has previously suggested coal generators put up bonds that are forfeited if they close early. We think this model is worth considering again.

Seize the opportunity

As the world’s largest exporter of coal and LNG, Australia has much to lose as global economies shift to zero emissions. But our renewable energy potential means we also have much to gain.

Australia needs a durable, nationally consistent policy framework if we’re to seize the opportunities of the global transition to clean energy. The NSW roadmap is a significant step in the right direction.




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The Conversation


Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Associate Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No water, no leadership: new Murray Darling Basin report reveals states’ climate gamble


Daniel Connell, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

A report released today investigating how states share water in the Murray Darling Basin describes a fascinating contrast between state cultures – in particular, risk-averse South Australia and buccaneering New South Wales.

Perhaps surprising is the report’s sparse discussion of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which has been the focus of irrigators’ anger and denunciation by National Party leaders: Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro.

In general terms, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was originally intended to make water management in the Murray Darling Basin more environmentally sustainable. Its critics see it as a restraint on development, and complain it has taken water away from irrigators during a time of extreme drought.




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In response to McCormack and Barliaro’s criticisms of the plan in late 2019, federal water minister (and senior National Party figure) David Littleproud commissioned Mick Keelty as Interim Inspector General of MDB Water Resources.

For the new report, Keelty investigated the changing distribution of “inflows” – water flowing into the River Murray in the southern states.

Climate change has brought the inflow to just a trickle. This dramatic reduction over the past 20 years is what Keelty has described as “the most telling finding”.




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He also investigated the reserve policies under which the three states choose – or don’t choose – to hold back water in Hume and Dartmouth Dams to manage future droughts.

Keelty says there’s little transparency or clarity about how much water states are allocated under the Murray Darling Basin Agreement (the arrangement for sharing water between the states which underpins the Basin Plan). This failure in communication and leadership across such a vital system must change.

Sharing water across three states

One major finding of Keelty’s inquiry is that the federal government has little power to change the MDB Agreement between the three states, which was first approved in 1914-15. Any amendment requires the approval of all three governments.

To increase the volume of water provided to NSW irrigators, South Australia and Victoria would need to agree to reduce the volumes supplied to their own entitlement holders. That will not happen.

Why has the agreement lasted so long?

Over the past century it has proved robust under a wide range of conditions. Its central principle is to share water with a proportion-of-available-flow formula, giving each state a percentage of whatever is available, no matter whether it’s a lot, or not much.

After receiving its share of the River Murray flows, each state is then free to manage its allocation as it wishes.




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Historically, South Australia and Victoria have chosen to reserve or hold back a larger proportion of their shares each year in Hume and Dartmouth dams to use in future droughts, compared with New South Wales.

In part this difference derives from the long-term water needs of orchards and vines in South Australia and Victoria, in contrast to annual crops such as rice and cotton in New South Wales.

As a result, South Australia and Victoria have a higher proportion of high security entitlements. That means they receive 100% most years. Only in extreme drought years is their allocation reduced.

NSW, on the other hand, has a higher proportion of low security general entitlements. In dry and normal years they receive a proportion of their entitlements. Only in wet years do they get the full 100%. (These differences in reliability are reflected in the cost of entitlements on the water market.)

Reliability of water supply

What’s more, each state makes its own decision about how its state allocation is shared between its entitlement holders (95% of water goes to irrigators the rest supplies towns and industry).

South Australia chooses to distribute a much smaller proportion to its entitlement holders than New South Wales. It also restricted the number of licences in the 1970s. That combination ensures a very high level of reliability in supply. Victoria took a similar approach.




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But New South Wales did not restrict licences until the 1990s. It also recognised unused entitlements, so further reducing the frequency of years in which any individual would receive their full allocation of water.

When climate change is taken into account these differences between the three states result in their irrigators having significantly different risk profiles.

The climate change threat to the basin is very real

Despite climate denial in the National Party, the threat is very real in the MDB. The report describes a massive reduction in inflows over the past 20 years, approximately half compared with the previous century. One drought could be an aberration, but two begins to look like a pattern.

The report also suggests that in many cases irrigator expectations of what should be normal were formed during the wet period Australia experienced between the second world war and the 1990s.

Added to this have been business decisions by many irrigators to sell their entitlements and rely on the water market, a business model based on what now seems like unrealistic inflow expectations.




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In effect, successive New South Wales governments – a significant part of the state’s irrigation sector in the southern part of the state and the National Party – gambled against the climate and are now paying a high price.

In desperation, they’re focusing on alternative sources. This includes the water in Hume and Dartmouth held under the reserves policy of the two other states; environmental entitlements managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder; the very large volume of water lost to evaporation in the lower lakes in South Australia; and the possibility of savings resulting from changes to management of the system by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Failure in leadership and communication

For reasons already outlined, the state reserves policy is not likely to change and use of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder environmental water entitlements would not be permitted under current legislation.

Management of the lower lakes is being reviewed through another investigation so is not discussed in the report. The report also states that management of the MDB Authority is subject to regular detailed assessment by state governments, and they have assessed its performance as satisfactory.




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However the report was critical of the performance of all MDB governments with regard to leadership and communications suggesting that failures in those areas were largely responsible for the public concern which triggered its investigation.The Conversation

Daniel Connell, Research Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New ways of ‘being together apart’ can work for us and the planet long after coronavirus crisis passes


Random Thoughts

Oxfam/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Andrew Glover, RMIT University and Tania Lewis, RMIT University

Most major corporate, academic and other networking events have been cancelled because of the risks of spreading the coronavirus while travelling or at the events themselves. This flurry of cancellations has even spawned a literally titled website: https://www.isitcanceledyet.com/. But the changes in behaviour now being forced upon us might benefit the planet in the long term as we find and get used to other ways of holding meetings.

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving the development of these alternatives to physical travel and meetings much more strongly than climate change had to date. With many countries closing their borders, limiting domestic travel and imposing restrictions on large gatherings, few conferences are likely to proceed in the coming months of 2020.




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How changes brought on by coronavirus could help tackle climate change


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Out of control, contained, safe? Here’s what each bushfire status actually means



We’re used to images of firefighters with hoses, but more of the firefighting effort goes to clearing vegetation than spraying with water.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Thomas Duff, University of Melbourne

In this record-breaking bushfire season, notifications from emergency managers have become a familiar feature of Australian life. Terms like “out of control” and “contained” are regularly heard as descriptions of the status of fires, but what do they actually mean?

These terms vary slightly between Australian states and territory, but as similar firefighting strategies are used Australia-wide, the meanings are comparable.

The status of a fire is a description of the stage of the firefighting effort, not the nature of the fire or its likelihood of being a threat. This means that to understand what actions to take when an active fire is nearby, it’s important to follow the advice of your local fire and emergency information sources.




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‘Going’ or ‘out of control’

A fire described as “going” or “out of control” is one where parts of its perimeter are burning and have the potential to spread into unburnt areas.

The perimeter is the focus as it is where unburnt fine fuels (consisting of the litter on the forest floor, shrubs and bark) are being ignited and burning rapidly. The flames of these subside quickly, so the majority of a fire’s interior consists of blackened area where only heavy fuels such as logs and branches continue to burn.

A fire will be given the status “going” when it is first detected or reported to emergency authorities. The status may also be used for fires that were controlled and subsequently breakaway (escape control).

“Going” fires will typically be the subject of concentrated firefighting effort to prevent growth and minimise the impacts to things of value (i.e. lives, property, infrastructure and ecosystem services). However the term is inclusive of all fires that are able to spread, so encompasses everything from shrubs burning under a tree hit by lighting to intense firestorms.

Contained or “being controlled’

A “contained” fire is one with a complete containment line around its perimeter. “Being controlled” will have a complete or near-complete containment line. Containment lines (also called control lines or firelines) are the main way to stop bushfires spreading.

While our images of firefighters involve hoses spraying water against the flames, water is, in fact, inefficient because of the vast amounts needed to douse the large amounts of burning vegetation and the difficulty of maintaining supply in rugged terrain.

Instead, to stop fires spreading, firefighters create containment lines where all fuels are removed in bands adjacent to the fire’s perimeter. This prevents the fire reaching unburnt vegetation, starving the flames of new material to burn.

So how are containment lines created? Typically, with heavy machinery (often bulldozers), which scrape away all burnable material around the edge of the fire so nothing but mineral soil remains. In rugged terrain, this may be done by hand, by specialist crews using tools such as rakehoes and chainsaws.

Where there are existing areas of low fuel in the landscape, such as roads, bodies of water or previously burnt areas, firefighters may also include these as part of their containment strategy.

The containment line is built next to the burning fire edge, so the more intense or erratic a fire is, the more difficult and dangerous it is for crews to work.




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It’s not safe to construct a line where fires are spreading rapidly, producing many embers, behaving erratically, have deep flames or are exhibiting firestorm-type behaviours (where the fire is so intense it can generate extreme winds and even lightning).

At such times firefighters will either move to parts of the fire where behaviour is less intense (typically where the wind is pushing the flames away from unburnt fuel), apply indirect firefighting methods such as backburning (burning areas in front of the advancing fire) or retreat and focus on protecting life and property.

The exceptionally hot, dry and windy conditions of the 2019/20 fire season have resulted in many rapidly expanding bushfires that have overwhelmed the capacity of firefighters to build containment lines.

As a fire is being contained, crews will be assigned to patrol the already constructed parts of the line to prevent escapes. The burning-out of unburnt fuels within the containment lines may be done to reduce the chance this ignites and causes issues at a future date.

Under control, or ‘patrol’

A fire that’s “under control” has a full containment line around it, and there has been a degree of consolidation so fire escaping outside the lines is unlikely.

This consolidation is called “mopping up” or “blacking out”, and consists of crews working along the edge of the fire to extinguish or stabilise any burning material in the fire area within a set distance of the line.

Fire elevates the risk of trees falling, so at this stage there may also be work to identify and treat dangerous trees.

After line consolidation is complete, routine patrols to prevent escapes will continue for days to weeks until the fire is deemed safe.




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Safe

The final status applied to bushfires is “safe”. This is where deemed that no sources of ignition within containment lines have the potential to cause escapes.

Once a fire is declared safe, it’s assumed no longer necessary to maintain patrols and the fire can be left alone.

After the fire season it’s common for management agencies to rehabilitate the containment lines, to restore the site to its prior condition to protect biodiversity values and water quality.

The status of a fire can change – even fires thought to be safe occasionally break away when hot and windy weather returns. Regardless of whether there are known fires in your area, it is important to have a bushfire survival plan and to pay attention to the advice of your local fire and emergency information sourcesThe Conversation

Thomas Duff, Postdoctoral Fellow, Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities



Rolling images and stories of bushfire devastation can take a toll.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

You’re scrolling through your phone and transfixed by yet more images of streets reduced to burnt debris, injured wildlife, and maps showing the scale of the fires continuing to burn. On the television in the background, a woman who has lost her home breaks down, while news of another life lost flashes across the screen.

You can’t bear to watch anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sound familiar?

We’ve now been confronted with these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by the bushfires, it’s completely normal to feel sad, helpless, and even anxious.

Beyond despairing about the devastation so many Australians are facing, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety”.




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If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

Research on previous bushfire disasters shows people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.

After Black Saturday, about one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.

Recognising this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funding to deliver mental health support to affected people and communities.

But living in an unaffected area doesn’t mean you’re immune. In addition to contending with rolling images and stories of devastation, we’ve seen flow-on effects of the bushfires reach far beyond affected areas.

For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer holidays, and sports matches and community events have been called off. This disruption to normal activities can result in uncertainty and distress, particularly for children and young people.

What is eco-anxiety?

Distress around the current fires may be compounded by – and intertwined with – a pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in relation to climate change-related events.

The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

While concern and anxiety around climate change are normal, eco-anxiety describes a state of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems we’re facing. It can be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.




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The Australian bushfires may have signalled a “tipping point” for many people who held a passive attitude towards climate change, and even many who have held a more active view of climate denialism. In the face of current circumstances, the crisis of climate change now becomes almost impossible to ignore.

While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have significant impacts on a person’s well-being.

Whether you think you’re suffering from eco-anxiety or more general stress and depression about the bushfires, here are some things you can do.

We’re pretty resilient, but support helps

We’re now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires people to adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and to live with uncertainty.

We can enhance this resilience by connecting with friends and family and positively engaging in our communities. Making healthy choices around things like diet, exercise and sleep can also help.

Further, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person giving and receiving assistance. For example, parents have a critical role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing appropriate guidance.




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Become part of the solution

Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness – in addition to the positive difference these small actions make to the environment.

This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and making sustainability a factor in day-to-day decisions like what you buy and what you eat.

Seeking support from friends and family can help.
From shutterstock.com

Joining one of the many groups advocating for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned about the changing climate.

Finally, there are many ways you can provide assistance to bushfire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many are facing enormous hardship.

Seeking professional help

Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological distress, will find it harder to adapt to increased stress. Where their emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate change.

Although we don’t yet have research on this, it’s likely people with pre-existing mental health problems will be more vulnerable to eco-anxiety.

If this is you, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help if you feel your mental health is deteriorating at this time.




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Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to a degree it’s affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek advice from a health professional.

Evidence-based psychological interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mental health and well-being.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Mental Health, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.